S aturdays in Seoul are different these days. People from all walks of life, from farmers to Buddhist monks, university students, and families with strollers, all come together in huge protests in South Korea’s capital chanting “step down, step down, you must step down”.
Five weeks ago, the protests drew a few hundred thousand people. Last Saturday, an estimated 1.5 million South Koreans, just under 3% of the population, filled the streets, demanding President Park Geun-hye’s resignation.
Last week, Ms. Park found herself indicted for abuse of authority, coercion and attempted fraud. Denying all accusations, her lawyer called all claims “nothing more than ideological reflections of imagination and speculation, ignoring objective evidence”.
It was not enough to settle the outpouring of popular unrest. Not least as a corruption scandal known as Choigate, involving President Park and her long-term friend Choi Soon-sil, dubbed ‘shaman adviser’, an obscure figure from a spiritual cult with a Rasputin-like influence on the president, has gripped South Korea since late October.
In October, students and faculty staff of the prestigious Ewha Womans University started publicly demonstrating against the preferential treatment of Chung Yoo-ra, daughter of Choi Soon-sil, eventually pressing president emeritus Yoon Hoo-jung to resign. Afterwards, investigations were carried out into whether Ms. Chung was granted a free ride in her grades.
Media coverage of the then-minor scandal quickly shifted from focusing on daughter to mother and her awkwardly close relationship with President Park.
Choi Soon-sil is the daughter of Choi Tae-min, the founder of the ‘Church of Eternal Life’, a Christian cult. Mr. Choi was a mentor to Ms. Park until his death in 1994. He befriended Ms. Park’s father, a former military dictator, in the 1970s. According to a report by the Korean intelligence agency, Mr. Choi approached Ms. Park, claiming he could communicate with her dead mother’s spirit, resulting in Mr. Choi’s “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years”, as the New York Times reports.
Like father, like daughter: Mr. Choi had been accused of using his influence in the Blue House for personal gain, and the same accusations are now being levelled at his daughter.
Ms. Choi has allegedly used her influence over President Park to extort around $68 million from top South Korean companies, pressing them to donate money to her sports and cultural foundations, then using the money to pay her daughter's horse riding lessons.
She’s also accused of having access to classified information, without having security clearance. Audio footage revealed Ms. Park asking her aides to pass information onto Ms. Choi, requesting her buy-in.
President Park even had to shoot down claims she had been practicing shamanistic rituals in the Blue House.
Beyond President Park and her friend, who has been indicted on extortion and abuse of power, the scandal has engulfed two presidential aides, Ahn Jong-beom and Jung Ho-sung. But the scandal has broader repercussions, involving K-Pop video director Cha Eun-taek, who has worked with Gangnam Style star Psy. Mr. Cha allegedly used his ties to Choi Soon-sil to land lucrative contracts.
Also engulfed are big-name corporations such as Samsung, Hyundai Motor Co., LG and Lotte, as well as a luxurious private clinic, known for its anti-aging treatment which has been treating President Park for free, according to local media.
President Park has once vowed to rein in the chaebol – the huge South Korean conglomerates dominating the economy with a great influence on politics. Now her approval ratings have plunged, from 26% in October to an all time low of 4% today.
“Park has not appeared to be on top of the crisis,” former British diplomat James Hoare told The World Weekly. “Denials have been followed by admissions, which indicates a cover up rather than a willingness to get at the truth.”
The opposition has called for Ms. Park to be impeached. On Tuesday, South Korea’s first female president announced she will follow the National Assembly’s decision over whether or not she should step down before her term ends in February 2018.
“I see it as a political gambit, also a last ditch effort to avoid prosecution,” Professor Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at Sogang University, told The World Weekly. “She wants the Congress to come up with a deal that can exonerate her after stepping down. At the same time, she wants to buy time – it’s a part of a delaying tactic by throwing the ball to the court of Congress.”
Ms. Park’s ruling Saenuri Party has come out unanimously saying they want to see Ms. Park step down by the end of April. Elections would then be held by the end of June.
If Ms. Park goes now, as the opposition wants, then South Korea would be rendered temporarily leaderless. The National Assembly has not yet agreed on a new prime minister, since Ms. Park’s choice Kim Byung-joon was rejected by the opposition on November 7.
The South Korean constitution provides for the prime minister to take over office if the presidential seat is left vacant. But should Ms. Park be impeached, it would create a power vacuum. This could have a significant impact on the country’s foreign relations, and it would come at an extremely perilous time as North Korea grows more belligerent and the incoming US president is threatening to withdraw US troops from South Korea.
What is different about this scandal?
South Korean politics is no stranger to corruption scandals.
The two sons of Kim Dae-jung (1998 - 2003) were jailed for taking bribes. His successor, human rights lawyer-turned-president Roh Moo-hyun, jumped off a cliff after leaving office, when investigations over taking $6 million in bribes closed in around him.
President Lee Myung-bak, (2008-2013) apologised for his brother and close political ally, who had accepted $500,000 from two banks in return for political influence.
Nevertheless, Jeachun Kim said, “this scandal is qualitatively different from the previous ones, in previous corruption scandals involving the Korean presidents, it was mostly the family members of the presidents who had been the centre of the corruptions, mostly unbeknownst to the presidents. In this case, it has been the president who has been [allegedly] orchestrating all wrongdoings”.
Another reason for the extreme outrage against Ms. Park is that she was favoured in the 2012 election, as she has no close family ties, which led people to think she might be beyond nepotism. Her parents are dead and she is reportedly estranged from her brother and sister.
Who is likely to follow in Ms. Park’s footsteps?
Impeachment seems unlikely, as the Saenuri Party has the majority in the National Assembly and a vote needs a two-third majority to be successful. But “for now, the opposition leaders have a better chance to be elected as president, and this is what the current administration, the ruling party and its supporters are trying to prevent from happening,” Dr. Hyun Bang Shin, a professor at LSE, told The World Weekly.
If and when Ms. Park does go, who is likely to succeed her?
“Moon Jae-in stands the strongest chance. He is the leader of pro-Roh Moo Hyun faction [the opposition], and people now have nostalgia to Roh Moo Hyun more than ever, because his governing style was the opposite of Park’s. Roh was a good communicator unlike Park,” Professor Kim said.
On the other hand, “given the nature of South Korean politics, I would not expect any radical innovations. Even if Park goes,” James Hoare states.